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I'm not a native speaker of English, but I'm pretty fluent in Received Pronunciation.

I've recently noticed that the way Americans make the sound /ɪ/ is different from the way I, and RP speakers in general, usually make it. It sounds closer to /ɛ/.

Compare the American and British pronunciations of sit in this Cambridge Dictionary entry, for example.

Is there a difference, or is it a false impression I get because English is not my mother tongue?

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    In what video? The KIT vowel and the FACE vowel are quite unalike in virtually all English accents. Or are you talking about the PIN–PEN merger? That’s with [ɪ] and [ɛ] not with [ɪ] and [e], and it does not happen in General American, just down in the old Confederate states of the southeast. Just wait till you meet æ raising.
    – tchrist
    Dec 4, 2022 at 0:46
  • Presumably the OP means 'in the word video'. Dec 4, 2022 at 15:08
  • @tchrist. In no video. Someone just misedited my question. As you mentioned, I meant [ɪ] and [ɛ] not [ɪ] and [e]. I read about the PIN–PEN merger, but it does not look like what I am looking for. Dec 4, 2022 at 17:36
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    There are lots of vowel shifts in America, so different Americans pronounce /ɪ/ differently. There's the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, there's the California Vowel Shift, there's the Canadian Vowel Shift, and there are several varieties of Southern American English. Where are these Americans from? Do you know? Dec 4, 2022 at 18:23
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    @AhmadNourallah Are you hearing the two versions of sit given there at Cambridge as different vowels — and if so, would those differences work out to being different vowels in your own first language? They do not work out to different vowels for us, even if they don't necessarily sound 100.000000000000% identical in both recordings.
    – tchrist
    Dec 4, 2022 at 19:59

2 Answers 2

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No, not usually — but sometimes yes and sometimes no. The two versions given by Cambridge for sit have the same vowel to our ears.

And sometimes one British-Isles speaker will use different sounds for the KIT vowel than another British-Isles speaker will, just as sometimes one North-American speaker will use different sounds for KIT than another North-American speaker will use.

None of that variation changes which abstract phoneme we mean by the KIT vowel. Every English vowel phoneme has zillions of different actual pronunciations each! Allophones don’t matter. If they did, nobody would ever understand when a New Zealander ordered “Fush-un-Chups”. :)

Examples Needed, Please

It really is impossible to know which words the asker is thinking of until he tells us, but one potential systemic difference I can think of is that many and probably most Americans today now use the tense FLEECE vowel not the lax KIT vowel before orthographic ‑ng and ‑r, so like in king and beer.

That’s because the tense–lax distinction is normally neutralized in those positions in American English. Because there are no minimal pairs for words like king and beer between tense and lax versions, it does not matter and so gets neutralized without anybody noticing.

It’s not all black and white, and I may be unintentionally exaggerating that particular difference here.

Phonemes ≠ Phones

If you look at the ɪ row from the Wikipedia chart of “diaphonemes” here, you’ll see that the KIT phoneme has many, many, many different pronunciations everywhere. This is just as true for this phoneme as it is for the others. Vowels have no single pronunciation. Here’s that row laid on its side to read it better as a column:

Dialect Pronunciation
African American Vernacular English ɪ~iə̯
Boston English ɪ~ɪ̞~ɪ̈
Cajun English ɪ
Californian English ɪ̞
General American ɪ~ɪ̈
Younger Southern American English ɪ~ɪjə~iə̯
Australian English ɪ~i
Brummie ɪ~i
Estuary English ɪ~ɪ̈
Northern England ɪ
Contemporary RP ɪ̞
Belfast Ulster Irish English ɪ̈~ë
Traditional Ulster Irish English ə~ɘ
Ulster Scots ɛ
Dublin Irish English ɪ
Cultimate New Zealand English ɪ̈
Broad/General New Zealand English ə
Scottish English ɪ~ë̞~ə~ʌ
Cultivated South African English ɪ
General South African English ɪ̈, ɪ
Broad South African English ɪ̈, i
Abercraf Welsh English ɪ
Cardiff Welsh English ɪ̞

This is just like for all the other vowel phonemes in English. Nobody ever says anything the same in one place as anybody else does in another place. These varying pronunciations of KIT are all allophones that you need to learn to stop hearing. They are not different phonemes, only different sounds. Mishearing different sounds as somehow representing different phonemes is a common mistake by learners of English. The sounds don’t matter, believe it or not.

Furthermore, these values only count for the stressed KIT vowel when it is surrounded by unvoiced stops. When you use a voiced stop like b, d, g to either side, or a nasal like m, n, or a velar like k, g, or a resonant like r, l, then any of these factors can again completely change the actual sounds used to pronounce this phoneme.

Phonemes are not what you hear; they're only what you think. Phones are what you hear and say, and every vowel phoneme in English has more allophones than you can shake a stick at.

Your task is to be able to unhear these minute difference in the sounds all these different allophones make in different regions, speakers, and phonological environments.

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    All that is well and good, but when you teach English (or learn it), you have to learn basic minimal pairs (kit/kite). And, though there may be some regional variation, they don't all vary all the time or there'd be no English. Of course, very marked variations, depending on where you are should be taken into account by the teacher, That Cambridge difference for sit is not in the i, it's in the surrounding sound context.
    – Lambie
    Dec 4, 2022 at 19:36
  • @Lambie It really is impossible to know which words the asker is thinking of until he tells us, but one major difference I can think of is that many and probably most Americans today now use the tense FLEECE vowel not the lax KIT vowel before orthographic ‑ng and ‑r, so like in king and beer. That’s because the tense–lax distinction is normally neutralized in those positions in American English. It’s not all black and white, and I may be unintentionally exaggerating that particular difference here.
    – tchrist
    Dec 4, 2022 at 19:48
  • I think one has to tailor one's remarks to an OP and I am pretty sure s/he won't make much sense of this. My examples were kit/kite. bit/bite. That kit and bit are the same across the pond. And I also highly doubt that the sound of i in sit is a good example for discussing "received pronunciation". (He gave the example of sit in the Cambridge Dictionary).
    – Lambie
    Dec 4, 2022 at 19:57
  • @Lambie I bet he must hear the two pronunciations of sit given at Cambridge as not being the same in the UK version and the US version. I don't, but I bet he does.
    – tchrist
    Dec 4, 2022 at 20:01
  • @Lambie: The OP isn't hearing wrong; the Cambridge dictionary definitely pronounces the American and British versions of the vowel differently, They are both in the range of reasonable /ɪ/s in English, but to me the British pronunciation they have of sit sounds a little closer to seat than their American pronunciation. Dec 4, 2022 at 21:28
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Saying that something is an allophone does not really help in real life. People do get them wrong. For instance, British lust /last/ and American lost /last/ do get even the native confused. Etc.
As to the the question..., yes, generally they do pronounce them differently, but from childhood they get exposed to the other significant /ɪ/ and their brain registers it as an /ɪ/. And this is why they do not sense this difference most experts and some esl students do.

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    This is quite incorrect. In this and in your other answers you appear to be misassigning IPA vowel symbols to the sounds being made. The word lust is never, ever pronounced [last]. It is [lʌst] in SSBE aka Estuarine English, [ləst] in America and in some parts of northern England, and [lʊst] in other parts of northern England. Nor is lost ever pronounced [last] anywhere at all, either. It is [lɔst] almost universally across the Anglosphere, although a few people from southern California may say [lɑst] which may be confused for last [læst] by SSBE speakers who can have [lɑst] for last.
    – tchrist
    Sep 30, 2023 at 16:04
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    You are confusing many of these vowels: [a] and [ɑ] are not at all the same.
    – tchrist
    Oct 4, 2023 at 17:15
  • As signs , most certainly. But we are in an area where we talk about allophones. And they do overlap. Oct 8, 2023 at 4:38
  • Give me some word examples with [a] and [ɑ], please! I am very curious. BTW Cambridge Dictionary gives the following transcription for American English: US /ˈfɑː.ðɚ/, /kɑːm/, /fɑːl/, /ˈbɑː.ðɚ/ Oct 9, 2023 at 16:47

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